This year I’m participating in an asynchronous, online book club in a private Facebook group. In this post I’m going to capture some of the logistics of how it’s working so far and some reflections on what it’s like to participate from the perspective of a community manager who’s not running the group.
One degree of separation – setting up the group
The book club was the idea of a friend who set up a private Facebook group and then posted that she was willing to invite any of her Facebook friends who were interested in taking part. So the members all know her but not necessarily anyone else in the group. We’ve a total of 18 members overall, of which 7 of us participate most months and maybe 7 have not yet joined the conversations.
As part of getting the group started, the organiser posted a welcome thread – where we could share a story about how we came to know the organiser. While this was amusing, it also set a high bar as many of the responses were really witty, piling on the pressure to think of something equally amusing to say – and yet the comments didn’t necessarily help you to get to know the individuals involved. If we were to do it again, I’d be interested in some basic intros – where people are based, their favourite ever books or favourite recent books – to help establish some potential points of connection between a group of strangers.
Democracy in action – selecting what to read and who to lead each month
We decided to use NPR’s best books of 2016 as our master list of books to choose from. The group organiser pasted these into a Google doc so we could track which we’d read each month and which options were left for future months.
Each month, the group organiser starts a discussion asking for suggestions of books from the list that people in the group would like to read in the coming month. This results in a shortlist of three being compiled (we rarely end up with more than three suggestions in total – it’s only a small group and at least in the beginning we didn’t have strong preferences about the short list.)
Next, a poll is created and we each have a couple of days to vote for our book of choice. We started off using Google forms to vote but have now switched to Facebook’s own polling system. This has meant that we can now see who’s voted for which title – which has pros and cons.
The person who nominated the winning book has first refusal on whether they want to lead the discussions about it, which has been a nice way of sharing the responsibility of hosting and keeping the conversations going, without necessarily having to formally commit weeks in advance.
As a community manager of online groups, I’ve appreciated the experience of being a participant for a change, with this shared responsibility for the group. I’ve ended up reading books I hadn’t heard of – and some that I probably wouldn’t have picked off the shelf if I saw them in a bookshop. It’s also been interesting to reflect on the mechanics of how we’re organising things and where improvements might be possible. For example, we’ve ended up with quite a run of family drama novels and the voting system doesn’t help us to break out of that.
Finding a rhythm – adopting a predictable schedule for each month
As the months have gone by the discussions have settled into a regular rhythm:
Week 0: Ask for suggestions of books from the master list
Week 0: Vote in poll for the next book
Week 1: The winning book is announced and reading starts
Week 2- 3: Initial impressions – a discussion that asks something like “What’s your favourite sentence from the book?” or “Which characters would you like to meet?” This has enabled those who’ve already finished the book to start discussing it without revealing any spoilers.
Week 4: More detailed discussion of the book. Usually the person responsible for the book discussion will start a single discussion thread with multiple questions – each posted as a separate comment.
In addition, some months other group members have started secondary discussions. For example, someone found and posted a picture of a piece of art that was referred to in one of the books which both added intrigue for those who hadn’t got to that section yet while being an “Aha!” moment for those who had and had been unable to place the reference.
Overall reflections – communities, convenience and continuity…
It’s been interesting as a community manager to experience a task-driven community of interest in this way and it’s caused me to reflect on the other groups that I participate in online.
Here are a few quick observations:
1) Group members will gradually reveal their preferences and personalities over time
For a group that didn’t know each other in advance, the core group of us who’ve been participating each month have been gradually getting to know more about one another through the book discussions. Because the books have tackled topics including body image, growing up, family problems and racism, the discussions have unsurprisingly revealed some of our opinions and personalities. This process does take time though and asynchronous conversations and lack of in-person interaction has definitely slowed the process.
2) Facebook groups are both convenient and frustrating!
Hosting the group on Facebook was initially convenient because it meant that I could go and check out the group in the same session as doing something else on the site – without needing another login. However, notifications for Facebook groups seem to be somewhat erratic. Over time I’ve ended up manually going to the group once a week or so, when I remember, rather than shortly after the latest update. This means the group lacks momentum because there’s little expectation that anyone receives a quick response to their comments.
At the end of the month, the main discussion thread can get awkward to follow when you’re trying to have several sub-conversations in the same thread. However, the alternative of starting multiple separate threads could get overwhelming quickly – and make it difficult to keep track of the conversations. Getting the UX of comment threads right isn’t a new problem, but this is a particular example of how navigating to individual comments and threads may need to be better customised to the individual user.